A classic car on the drive is a dream many of us aspire to. Saturdays spent polishing it, sunny Sundays spent touring the countryside, top down or 4 up with friends. It’s an idyllic image and one that brings happiness to thousands of classic car owners every year.
Yet alongside those proud owners, their smiles perfectly reflected in their chrome bumpers, there are many classic car owners who rue the day they ever clapped eyes on their vehicle. To help you fit snuggly into the former rather than the latter group, here are some top tips on buying a classic car gleaned from our experience running a fleet of 60 classic hire vehicles.
And believe me, if mistakes are there to make, we’ve made them. But we’ve learned.
Do your research
Before you spend a single minute looking at classic car adverts in magazines or online, spend as much time as possible researching the car you want to buy. Find out what its strengths and weaknesses are. Check parts supply and parts costs. Check typical prices for cars of different condition. Join the owners club, sign up for online forums, visit classic car shows. Once you’ve done your desk research talk to owners – most are more than happy to tell you what owning a particular car is actually like. And generally they know the clever little tricks you need to keep it running reliably and cost-effectively. Buy the best you can afford.
Check what you really need to pay for the car you want to buy and budget accordingly.
Decide what sort of car you want – a restoration project or a concours queen – and budget accordingly. There are no bargains in the classic car world, only pitfalls. Prices for cars are all over the place and generally cars are over-priced. If you’ve researched the model you want carefully then you should have a checklist to run through when you inspect a car – when you see a fault you should have a rough idea how much it will cost to repair. When you view a car, take someone with you who can keep your enthusiasm in check.
If you’ve done your research and your feet are firmly on the ground then buying privately is the best way to go. Private sales give you the chance to assess the previous owner properly and you get much more information about how the car has been looked after. And above all, you avoid the retailer’s premium. If you have not had time to do the research or you want the security of ‘someone to blame’ a dealer is the way to go. But personally, we think better value cars are found privately.
Find a local expert
If you’re not mechanically minded then you will need a local garage or mobile mechanic who can keep the car running for you. This is not always as straightforward as it seems. Depending on how common the classic you want to buy is you will need someone who is experienced in working on your type of car. Otherwise you risk higher costs incurred by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing wasting their time and your money trying to trace otherwise simple problems and faults.
Buy a car that has been used regularly
In the world of classic cars, low mileage is king. But it’s a myth. To be reliable a car has to be used. Generally when we buy a new car at Great Escape it will take at least a year for it to be reliable. That’s because most classic cars are rarely used, and when they are it’s during the summer months only. Inactivity kills cars. To be reliable cars need to be used regularly – not a lot, but regularly. So when you inspect a car that the owner is proud to say has only done 500 miles since the MOT 12 months ago, walk away or bid accordingly. Any car is reliable if it is hardly used – it’s when you start to use and enjoy a classic car that its weaknesses are revealed.
Put it on a ramp
Most classic cars are shiny because their owners like polishing them. The underside is a different matter. When you inspect a car try to get underneath it. This will give you a window into the owner’s real maintenance regime. Firstly, the underside should be relatively grime free, showing that the owner jet washes the car properly on a regular basis. The car needs to be undersealed to protect the body but if the underseal is fresh, ask what it is trying to conceal. Check for leaks and spray back from the engine. Check the suspension components – how clean or new are they, have they been recently checked and maintained? Look for signs of corrosion or of welding – a car with significant localised welding will be worth less than a more original car.
Check the history file
Most classic cars will have a thick history file. If not, ask why. Leaf through the file and check that the weaknesses and maintenance requirements of the car have been addressed – that it has been serviced regularly and items like cambelts renewed on time. Don’t be alarmed by a high number of previous owners – but be suspicious if nobody has ever kept the car very long. Ask the owner about his experiences with the car – ask direct questions about what has gone right and what has gone wrong. Why is he selling?
However much you love a particular car, if you’ve never owned one before then the chance are you haven’t driven it. Do so as quickly as possible – ask a club member for a drive or take some test drives at a dealer. You may find that the dream doesn’t quite live up to reality – if so, admit it and move on. It will be much cheaper that way. Similarly, make sure your family or maybe even your friends like the car too – it will make owning it through the ups and downs so much easier.
It is very easy to get caught up in the dream of classic car ownership. Try to step back. Ask how often you will drive it, do you have somewhere to park it, can you afford to own and maintain it? If the answer is maybe or no to any of those questions, think again. There are other ways to enjoy a classic car, including hiring one, which may be cheaper and less hassle.
Budget for failure
However well you research and buy the car of your dreams, the chances are it will not be plain sailing. Things will go wrong. You will discover things about it that you want to improve. This is inevitable and unavoidable. All you can do is minimise the chance of it happening. So budget accordingly – expect to spend 20-30% of the purchase price in the first year making it better. It will be worth it – you’ll be investing in the car and creating a vehicle that you can enjoy any time of the year.